Adventures with Food

The following post contains my new adventures with food while in Israel. Some of what I have to say are just funny stories that stem from my minimal Hebrew skills and false assumptions made about food here. They are funny stories, so please laugh. Also, if there are any recipes that you are interested in, let me know and I will e-mail them to you.

When we first arrived in Israel, I made it one of my goals to expand my recipe repertoire. I figured it takes time to try new things and now I have the time. After three months here, I would like to say that I have been amazingly successful with this goal, but I the truth is that I have only met with moderate success. Part of the issue is that I have become busier and busier as the weeks have gone by. The other part of the issue is that we tend to eat late (I mean 8ish is early for us) and by then it is easy to fall back on easy staples like hot dogs and fries, pasta and meat sauce, or my absolute favorite, grilled cheese and tomato soup. And to be honest, I can also be a little lazy sometimes (if you can believe it).

I would say I have been moderately successful because I have tried a lot of new recipes in the past three months. Not quite as many as I wanted to, but still a number of them. The common denominator for many of these new recipes is the lentil. I have always heard about lentils but never really had them. I don’t know how I got it stuck in my head that I should cook with them, but when I arrived here, it was definitely on my mind. To be honest, it is probably the fact that Adam and I are trying to cut back on our meat consumption since it will help lower our ecological footprints, and lentils are a great source of protein. After a lot of searching, I found a recipe for lentil and barley soup. This recipe was ground-breaking for me, not because of the lentils, but because for the first time in my life, I stopped being a chemist when it comes to cooking. I used the recipe as a guide to basic amounts of things, but I changed it significantly to suit my own needs. The changes were mostly motivated by the fact that I didn’t exactly know the words for all the vegetables  in Hebrew yet, and in Israel you can only get vegetables and fruits that are in season. I didn’t know the status of celery at the time, and I didn’t have the motivation to buy a peeler for carrots. I added in what we had plus potatoes, and we had barley, lentil, and potato soup. This recipe was a big hit. Pretty much whenever we want soup for Shabbat, this tends to be the one I make.

After our first lentil success, I continued to find a main dish that could be filling and healthy. After another evening of recipe searching online, I found lentil and tomato stew, which is great served over rice. It is a little bit energy intensive when it comes to chopping all the tomatoes but it is definitely worth the effort. The other new addition is M’juddarah which is a lentil and rice dish that is a classic Middle Eastern dish. I stumbled upon it when trying to find a non-dairy vegetarian main dish recipe. It is really tasty and not too difficult to make.

Not so funny yet right? Well at least my culinary explorations began with some positive experiences, especially because when we first got here, if the littlest thing went wrong, I melted down and wanted to go home. Now I can handle the disasters a bit better now. My first culinary disaster was when I found an amazing recipe for bean enchiladas. I was very excited to make this vegetarian dish because the recipe sounded great, and it was easy to make. I was excited that I had seen wraps and chili powder at the grocery store. All I needed was the standard kidney bean that is the crux of Mexican cooking. Important fact to know before going to an Israeli grocery store to buy kidney beans; canned beans are not very common in Israel.

I didn’t know this when I went to the store. I went to the canned vegetable aisle and selected what looked like canned kidney beans. There was a lot of Hebrew words on the can, none of which looked familiar, but hey, they looked like kidney beans. So I bought two cans, went home, and typed all those unfamiliar Hebrew words into Google translate. When the translation left me baffled, I turned to my friend Anat, who told me that what I bought were Ful beans, which are also known as Fava beans. Not the best choice for the recipe I selected but I could deal with the mistake. That was true until I found out that there is a genetic disorder, known as Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD deficiency), that is common in people of Mediterranean descent. It turns out that many people with G6PD deficiency have favism, which means that if they eat fava beans, they have a very bad reaction. How bad? People with favism that eat fava beans experience hemolytic anemia, which means that the red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be replenished. If it isn’t caught right away, the symptoms of hemolytic anemia include jaundice, dark urine, fatigue, trouble breathing, vomiting, and more. After learning all that, it came down to two options: take our chances and eat the beans or try to take the beans back to the grocery store. Considering how daunting it seemed to try to take the beans back to the grocery store, I went with option one. Adam and I don’t really have any Mediterranean blood in our family trees, so the chances of us having G6PD deficiency was pretty slim. I made the enchiladas, and we ate them. Being the worrier that I am, pretty much all night I was asking Adam how he felt. Eventually he told me to stop asking; that if he started vomiting I would be the first to know. No hemolytic anemia for us so yay! The enchiladas were still a disaster though. Genetic disorders aside, fava beans are no replacement for kidney beans, and I accidentally used 3 tablespoons of chili powder instead of 3 teaspoons. The enchiladas were too hot for me too eat so after pushing through one, Adam was required to eat 3!

We have not abandoned the enchilada recipe yet. My friend Anat told me that here they use dry beans so now I know what to buy. Not really knowing how to cook dry beans, I did some research and found out that you definitely have to cook kidney beans for at least 10 minutes before use. They contain a toxin that can harm you and cooking them gets rid of that. Who knew that beans could be so deadly! Anyway, I haven’t decided yet how I am going to approach the enchilada recipe the next time. I found canned kidney beans in one of the grocery stores so that is a relief. They are pretty expensive though since they are imported to make Americans like me feel better. There are frozen kidney beans, which are an option as are the dry beans. I hope to decide my course of action this week so that we can try this recipe again in the near future!

After the enchilada incident, there was the orzo, tomato, and basil salad that I wanted to make as a side dish for a Shabbat meal. I was really excited that I found orzo in the grocery store since I wanted to make this recipe, and I have a salmon recipe that we absolutely love that calls for it. We were having our friends the Brookmeyers (from West Hartford; they came for a visit which was great!) and two of their friends for lunch. By rule, I don’t make new recipes when we have guests because I worry that it won’t go well and then it makes a bad impression. Given the simplicity of orzo salad, I figured not much can go wrong. I made the salad, and overall it wasn’t terrible. The orzo was really mushy though, and I appreciate that everyone just ate it without complaint. I wasn’t happy with it, but taste out-ruled texture so the recipe was deemed a keeper. Shortly after this happened, I had a chance to talk with Anat about the whole thing, and I found out that orzo in Israel is not the same as orzo in the US. At home, orzo is like pasta. You boil water, add the orzo, cook it for the right amount of time, and yay you have orzo. In Israel, the orzo falls into a category of food called פתיתים, which is pronounced “petitim.” Petitim looks like pasta but acts more like couscous. To make it, you fry the dry petitim in oil with onions and other seasonings for about 2 minutes. Then you pour boiling water onto it and let the whole concoction simmer for 8-10 minutes. During this time, the petitim soaks up the water and becomes fluffy and yummy! It is awesome when you make it right! I was so embarrassed by my mistake, but Anat sympathized with my error. She told me that when she was in the states, the first time she bought orzo she thought it was petitim. She fried it and added boiling water to it, and yeah, it was a disaster. I guess it is true what they say about making assumptions…

Since the orzo incident, things have gone pretty well with new recipes. Old favorites began to show up more and more as I became busier. These easy recipes had to be modified a bit since you can’t always find equivalents for things here in Israel. For example, chicken hot dogs are what you find for the most part. You can find beef ones, but they are ridiculously expensive since they are made for Americans (they even call them American hot dogs). We actually like the chicken hot dogs though, and they are supposed to be healthier if hot dogs can ever be considered healthy. Grilled cheese and pizza have gotten a make-over as well. Cheese in Israel is very different. There is a wide variety, but it is very hard to equate them to what we have back home. We try not to compare, but we can’t help it sometimes. The first type of cheese we tried was pizza cheese. I used it to make baked zitti when we had some Fulbright friends over for our first Shabbat meal that we hosted. It wasn’t a disaster, but it didn’t exactly have any taste. We tried again with the pizza cheese when we made pita pizza, which replaces our favorite quick meal of pizza bagels since bagels are not a common occurrence in Israel. It was better, especially when we loaded the pita pizzas with spices and salt. The salt is probably the most important part. Cheese is saltier in the US, and we miss that I think. It was better with the salt and spices, but not good enough, so we have now abandoned the pizza cheese. When we want pizza, I buy frozen pizza because we live in Israel and we can do that without having to take out a mortgage. When I wanted to make grilled cheese, I of course turned to Anat to find out what to buy. She told me which one, and it is awesome! It makes great grilled cheese, and Adam eats it all the time for lunch, and we can probably use it in baked zitti, etc. It isn’t like mozzarella or american, but it has taste which is awesome. It also has a high fat content, which probably helps. In Israel, all dairy products can be bought based on fat content which is marked by a percent, just like milk in the states. It is trial and error to figure out what works for you, but hey, that’s the fun part isn’t it?

The last food challenge was the crock pot. This weekend we had people over that we hadn’t met before as part of a mix-it up Shabbat program, and I wanted to make soup. I was so excited to use our new crock pot which I got very cheap at the home store. Adam and I took the pot and top to the mikvah with a few other things on Friday morning so that we could use them over Shabbat. On our way home, I was happily rambling on about how excited I was to try this soup recipe when the cart wheel got caught and the handle fell out of my hand. It tipped to the ground, and we heard everything in the cart shift. We surveyed the damage and at first thought that everything made it through safely, but it turns out that the crock pot pot shattered. I was devastated! It took me a long time to get over the guilt of breaking it. I didn’t abandon my attempt to make slow cooked broccoli and potato soup however. I put everything in a pot with a lot of water and left it on the warming tray all night. It made the house smell good, and it tasted pretty good although the potatoes were a bit harder than I would like. We hope to call the company to see if we could get a replacement pot. Adam tried to glue it, but we don’t think the super glue will hold with the heat. Oh well! Things never go exactly as you plan! At least this time my mistake didn’t involve possible vomiting and death. I guess you can say I’ve come a long way in these three months 🙂

So the moral of the story is that our friend Anat is our Israeli food guardian angel who watches over us to make sure that we don’t make too many horrible cooking mistakes while in Israel. I have really expanded my recipe list, although I still have some more work to do given the fact that we are having meat sauce for dinner tonight. Oh well, there is still time; it has only been three months after all.

Who would have thought that my longest post so far would be about food. 🙂

Until next time…Allison

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